Friday, August 24, 2012
New crime from Iceland
Einar is a recovering alcoholic who has been sent (for his sins) to cover the privincial city of Akureyri (rather than his usual Reykjavik beat), along with his former news editor, now downgraded to heading the Akureyri office. There's obviously some back story to all this, but a reader will not be handicapped by not having been able to read the previous novels.
There's an interesting parallel and contrast not only between Thorarinsson's book and the books of the most prominent Icelandic crime writer (outside Iceland, at least), Arnaldur Indriðason and a Swedish author, Mari Jungstedt. The contrast with Indriðason is stark: his books are vivid and gripping but emotionally cool and decidedly dour, in terms of the characters and the stories. Thorarinsson's hero is a first-person narrator with a quick wit and a sarcastic attitude: rather than grim and dour, Einar's narrative is lively but still vivid. Though Einar is a smart-ass, with all the friction that comes with that attitude, in terms of his relations with co-workers and others, he also shares a quality with Mari Jungsteadt's journalist character, JOhann Berg: both are working in the provinces, and both have a higher sense of journalistic ethics than their bosses. And both tend to be a bit self-righteous about their ethics (more a Scandinavian attitude, perhaps--I can't think of an American or British journalist in crime fiction with his attitude).
Another similarity with Jungsteadt's stories is Joa, the young woman photographer who has also been banished from Reykjavik to Akureyri. Pia, in the more recent Jungstedt books, works with Johann but is very independent and has a bit of Lisbeth Salander in her (toned down to a more realistic character). Joa, too, is independent and quick-witted and, when push comes to shove in a confrontation with some skinheads, also has a bit of Lisbeth in her.
I had been looking forward to having access to Thorarinsson's books in English for some time, and Season of the Witch (named for the Donovan song, with plays a part in the story at several points) fulfilled its promise. It's a quite different kind of Icelandic crime fiction, and gives a different view of Icelandic culture and landscape from other writers in the genre. I have to say I don't like the cover that AmazonCrossing has given it very much: it doesn't really give much sense of the story or setting, seemingly pointing only to the first syllable in the name of the country. There are a couple of points in the book where I couldn't quite go along with the story (that fight with the dkinheads collapsed a bit, for me--I won't give away anything by explaining) and an otherwise effectively comic character (a small bird) comes in for some over-the-top comic effect toward the end. But those are small quibbles, i recommend the book and am already looking forward to having more of the author available in English (especially if Anna Yates contitues to be the translator--the prose glides smoothly and elegantly along in English).
I bought the book as a second-hand galley (without the cover that I don't like), but full disclosure: I know the author's sister, a sculptor who is well-respected both in and outside Iceland.